By Nora Heston Tarte

In the 1970s, educators used to discourage immigrant families from speaking their native tongue at home. Learning two languages simultaneously was thought to confuse children. Today, second languages are encouraged. Many studies have pointed toward greater academic achievement for children who speak more than one language. Being multilingual has also been linked to increased creativity.

A 2013 survey found that 91 percent of high schools in the United States offer foreign language courses. In addition, 58 percent of middle schools and 15 percent of primary schools do the same. However, 75 percent of Americans do not speak another language other than their native tongue.

“The traditional method of offering a second language for 30 minutes a day a few days a week does not have promising results when it comes to producing bilingual and biliterate students,” shares Dr. Gareth Zehrbach of Phoenix Schools. Enter immersion.

What is immersion programming?

Language immersion is a process used to teach a second language to students. The technique incorporates other school subjects into the instruction to provide total immersion into a language program. For example, the International School of Arizona (ISAZ) offers an academic program in French or Spanish. Students follow a structured curriculum, schedule and calendar right away. Instruction is taught in the target language 85 percent of the time. Remaining class time is devoted to English language instruction and includes science and math.

“It would be a misnomer to state that ‘we offer foreign language classes’ at our school,” says Dr. Ettie Zilber of ISAZ. “What we offer is an entire educational program in the target language.”
Dr. Zehrbach recommends immersion programs specifically. “These types of bilingual programs provide substantial amounts of content-based instruction in second languages. We know that content-based instruction in a second language is the best school-based option to learn another language,” he says.

While most research suggests multilingual children perform better academically than monolingual students, or students who speak one language, Zehrbach says we know that children in immersion programs are performing at least as well as their monolingual peers. Dr. Zilber adds that ISAZ’s Stanford Exam results prove that its students’ academic skills in English are far above grade level.

Starting early

While people can learn a new language at any age, studies have revealed additional advantages for those who start early. ISAZ offers classes for children as young as 2 years old. Ninety percent of a child’s brain development is achieved by age 5.

“New research by neurologists, psychologists and educational specialists has demonstrated that introduction to additional languages during the early years improves the brain’s capacity, making it nimbler, quicker, better able to deal with ambiguities and solve problems,” Dr. Zilber says.

Introducing children to a second language early also betters their chances of developing a native accent.

“There are advantages to learning a second language as a child, such as setting the stage for students to develop advanced levels of proficiency in one or more languages,” agrees Barbara Marshall, assistant superintendent for education services at Madison School District.

Benefits of foreign language learning

The benefits of multilingual learning may start in school, but advantages stretch far beyond what is measured by standardized tests. Research sees a direct correlation between multilingual children and high academic achievement as measured by these tests, but learning a second (or third, or fourth) language also prepares students to lead successful lives after school.

“Children who grow up to be bilingual or biliterate will support our nation’s economy, which in turn supports our future national security,” Dr. Zehrbach explains, adding that children with multilingual skill sets will have more career opportunities.

“Bilingual children also prove to be more creative and have better analytical and comprehension skills, not to mention skills in cross-cultural sensitivity and awareness. These are skills that will serve our students well in high school, university and in the future job market,” Dr. Zilber adds.

Helping kids learn a second language now may help them adapt to a world where major demographic shifts are expected to continue. Children who learn foreign languages may also be more accepting of others. Dr. Zehrbac points to research that suggests learning a second language can lead children to also learn tolerance while harnessing positive attitudes toward the notion of diversity.

“Learning a second language develops social skills, including developing positive attitudes toward Spanish speaking cultures,” Marshall says.

Choosing a language

While many of the benefits associated with multilingualism are universal, there are advantages exclusive to each target language, as well. For example, Spanish is currently the most common language spoken by Americans other than English. In fact, according to 2013 poll data, 58 percent of Americans speak Spanish. The close proximity of Arizona to Mexico is another reason Arizonians should consider Spanish as a second language.

Poll results also show that 20 percent of Americans speak French. Again, close proximity to native-French speakers likely has an impact.
“Approximately 200 million people around the world speak French – which is also the official language of many international organizations, including NATO, the United Nations and the International Olympic Committee,” Dr. Zilber says.

 

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